Ski for Free

backcountry skiing

High-Speed Quads: Earning your turns in the backcountry    Photo: Corbis

Most resorts never develop the cachet of Aspen, and many go bust. According to the National Ski Areas Association, more than 400 hills have shut down across the country in the past 30 years. But though the lifts may be gone, the cleared runs remain—untracked and there for the taking by anybody willing to hike or skin to the top. There's even a Web site (www.nelsap.org) to track them. Trespassing isn't an issue on Forest Service land, but heed the posted signs of private property. Avalanche training is a must, since these areas are no longer patrolled or controlled, but the payoff is untracked powder stashes from coast to coast.

Berthoud Pass, Winter Park, Colorado
Splitting Denver and Winter Park along Highway 40, Berthoud Pass, which closed its lifts in 2001, is ready for your roadside powder binge. An hourlong climb puts you on Mount Russell, at just over 12,000 feet, with access to the above-tree-line bowls of Current Creek's drainage and, to the southwest, 1,400-vertical-foot shots down the Eighties, Nineties, and Hundreds avalanche chutes to your waiting car shuttle. Only the bold should attempt the north-facing, slide-prone Mine Chutes, which claimed a life earlier this winter.
Stay: Gasthaus Eichler Hotel, Winter Park; $69-$250;
800-543-3899
Beta : Icebox Mountain Sports, Fraser; 970-726-8256

Cameron Pass, Fort Collins, Colorado
Served by a 950-vertical-foot rope tow until 1951, Cameron Pass, along Highway 14 north of Fort Collins, is no bunny hill. From the parking lot, at 10,276 feet, skin past tree line and take your pick from nearly a dozen 35-degree lines on the broad northeast-facing ridge of 11,852-foot Diamond Peak. For an extended touring trip in the Medicine Bowl Range, check out nearby Walden's Never Summer hut system (970-723-4070).
Stay: The Sheldon House, Fort Collins; $90-$125; 877-221-1918
Beta: The Mountain Shop, Fort Collins; 970-493-5720

Echo Summit, Lake Tahoe, California
When the snow piles up off Highway 50 west of South Lake Tahoe, locals head to Echo Summit. Two lifts operated here until the mid-seventies, and backcountry tree skiing remains. From the lot at Echo Summit Sno-Park ($5), a quick climb to the top of 8,400-foot Nebelhorn gains access to a perfect yo-yo line off the northwest face. When it's time to end the day, bail into the 2,500-foot east-facing glades of Christmas Valley and Highway 89 beyond.
Stay: Inn by the Lake, South Lake Tahoe; $100-$180;
800-877-1466
Beta: Sierra Ski and Cycle Works, South Lake Tahoe;
530-541-7505

Hitt Mountain, Cambridge, Idaho
Built in the shadows of 7,410-foot Hitt Mountain, the area was little more than a T-bar in a town better known for turkey hunting. After it closed, in 1985, the real skiing began, both on Hitt and neighboring 7,589-foot Sturgill Peak. Above tree line, descents come with views of Idaho's Seven Devils Mountains and the Snake River's Hells Canyon, in the desert along the Oregon-Idaho state line. Cambridge local Cyrus Wert and his buddies use a vintage Thiokol snowcat to get runs of up to 2,000 vertical feet. For you, the six-mile skin starts when your car can't go any farther on West Pine Road—or, if you're lucky, you can thumb a ride with Wert.
Stay: Hotel McCall, McCall; $95;
208-634-8105
Beta: Idaho Mountain Touring, Boise; 208-336-3854

Proctor and Ruud Mountains, Ketchum, Idaho
Along with Dollar Mountain, Proctor and Ruud are the remnants of Union Pacific's original 1930s destination-ski experiment—now better known as Sun Valley. After the lift was built on Bald Mountain, in the 1940s, Proctor and Ruud were retired. Access the pow east of Dollar Mountain on Fairway Road. (Lift-line clear-cuts are still visible.) It's 20 minutes through open, treeless terrain to Ruud's summit (6,705 feet) and another 20 to the top of Proctor (7,798 feet), with stellar views of Baldy. Thumb your nose at the movie stars skiing groomers before dropping into 700 vertical feet of turns.
Stay: Sun Valley Inn, Sun Valley; $189-$500; 800-786-8259
Beta: Elephant's Perch, Ketchum; 208-726-3497

Petersburg Pass, Petersburg, New York
Straddling the New York-Massachusetts state line, Petersburg Pass was a locals' mountain, founded in 1962 by two employees of Sprague Electric. Unable to draw skiers from surrounding towns, it closed in 1980, and saw-wielding skiers took it upon themselves to keep trails clear. The skin track starts on Route 2 on the New York side, near remnants of the old lodge foundations, and zigzags to the 2,600-foot summit at the Massachusetts line. Maples and oaks form slalom gates on 600 vertical feet of classic New England tree skiing.
Stay: The Orchards Hotel, Williamstown; $175-$225;
413-458-9611
Beta: The Mountain Goat, Williamstown; 413-458-8445

Mittersill, Franconia, New Hampshire
Mittersill hugs the northern edge of Franconia Notch State Park, just northwest of 2005 overall World Cup champion Bode Miller's home field, Cannon Mountain ski area. Created by an Austrian baron shortly after World War II, Mittersill operated until 1980, when it went under. Fuel your thermos at the Peabody or Tram lodge, then skin up Baron's Trail (there's no official gate, but it's legal) to around 3,400 feet, where skier-cut glades are kept relatively clear in an otherwise dense forest. Reopening Mittersill is part of Cannon's long-term plans, but until then, it's a well-earned reprieve from icy East Coast runs.
Stay: The Franconia Inn, Franconia; $91-$260; 800-473-5299
Beta: Franconia Sports Shop, Franconia; 603-823-5241

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